Oil giant pursues a “scorched earth” campaign against its most dogged critic
Steven Donziger is getting smashed into the concrete like a spent cigarette butt.
Since Donziger is a lawyer — and lawyers aren’t always the most sympathetic of characters — you might be excused for not caring too much about his fate. There are other things to worry about, after all: accelerating climate change, the people suffering in the Philippines, the mass extinction of plants and animals. But if you care about the health of the planet, you should pay attention to Donziger’s plight, because it’s a test of whether and how citizens will be able to use the law to hold corporations accountable for their behavior.
The attempted crushing of Steven Donziger comes courtesy of Chevron, one of largest oil companies in the world. For 20 years, Donzinger and Chevron have been locked in a sort of legal cage fight that has leapt from courtrooms in New York City to the remote forests of the Ecuadorian Amazon and back again. For most of that time, Donzinger was the pursuer as he sought to compel Chevron to pay for the cleanup of an oil spill in the jungle and damages to nearby communities. Now the script has been flipped, and Donzinger is the one under trial as Chevron accuses the plaintiff attorney of waging a “campaign of deceit and distortion.”
As you can already tell, the litigation in this matter is byzantine, so I’ll try to keep the background to the basics. Between 1964 and 1990, the oil company Texaco and the state-owned Petroecuador dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater and millions of gallons of crude oil into the jungles around the town of Lago Agrio. In 1993, lawyers in the US (soon joined by a young Donziger, fresh out of Harvard Law School) brought a suit against Texaco in US court. When Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, the California-based oil giant became the defendant. Chevron continued Texaco’s legal strategy of trying to get the case moved to Ecuador, and in 2003 the dispute was taken up by a court in Quito.
Agri-biotech companies will now have to disclose pesticide use details and GMO field locations on island
After a tense, two-day delay, the Kauai County Council finally voted 5-2 on Saturday to override Mayor Bernard Carvalho’s veto of a bill that seeks to regulate the biotech industry on the Hawai‘ian island. A tumultuous month after the council initially approved it, Bill 2491 is finally law.
Photo by Pesticides on Kauai
The new law, which will go into effect in August 2014, requires agricultural companies and large farms to disclose the type and volume of restricted-use pesticides they are spraying, and the location of the fields being sprayed. It also requires them to disclose genetically modified crop field locations and set up buffer zones between those fields and public spaces like schools, hospitals, and parks. Companies have to notify the public before spraying pesticides. Failure to comply will be punishable by fines and jail sentences. The bill also requires the county to investigate the impact of these pesticides on local residents and the environment.
The proposed legislation primarily affects the four big biotech companies that have operations in Kauai — Dow, Syngenta, BASF, and DuPont-Pioneer — which are among the largest employers on the island.
That the bill managed to make it through, despite the roller coaster of challenges it has faced over the past few months, is a miracle of sorts for its supporters. In fact, if not for some creative last-minute maneuvering by pro-bill councilmembers, the bill would have died on Thursday — the initial day the council was to vote to override the mayor’s veto. (Read my earlier report leading up to the Thursday vote.)
In what supporters call a last-ditch effort to derail the bill, a day before the initial veto vote on Thursday, Hawai‘i state officials announced a new program via which companies could voluntarily build buffer zones and disclose information about pesticide use. The program doesn’t give the county any enforcement powers, nor does it outline any penalty for non-compliance.
On Thursday, about 100 people testified before the council mostly in support of the bill. Speakers included several residents from the west side of the island — where most of the biotech companies have their fields — who spoke movingly about a their health issues, such as …more
Technology could be used to restore oyster and coral reef habitats around the world, researchers say
Most of us learn at an early age that electricity and water don’t mix. It is just this combination, however, that has been used for decades to encourage growth of reef habitat around the world. New research from Texas A&M University – Corpus Cristi has built upon existing technology to determine the perfect combination of electrical current, polarity, and voltage to maximize oyster reef growth.
Photo by Durras North
“We knew carbonate accumulation could be stimulated using electrical currents,” explains Dr. Paul Zimba, director of the Center for Coastal Studies at the university. “But there wasn’t enough research done on specific polarity, voltage and electrical current types needed to maximize growth.”
There are two primary components to the technology used by Zimba and graduate student Eliane Oelho. The first is a metal frame, which becomes the base for reef growth. The second component is a low voltage electrical charge, which causes calcium carbonate to precipitate and stick to the metal frame. The calcium carbonate structure provides an ideal environment for reef growth.
The researchers put one foot by four foot sections of rebar in the water and charged them using solar panels. The results were impressive. “In three weeks, we were able to get a one foot by four foot intact reef,” Zimba says. “There were oysters at very high density… and they were growing very rapidly.”
This research could not have come soon enough. “Many of the coastal regions of south Texas, and for that matter many areas of the Gulf of Mexico, [have] declining oyster populations,” Zimba says. “In Texas, a major reason for that was the harvesting of oyster shell for use in road construction that occurred in the 1950s to 1980s. That decimated the population of oysters, and it changed the [Gulf oyster] community from a hard bottom community to one that is a softer mud community.”
Oysters are no longer harvested for road-building purposes, but they face ongoing threats. “Oysters have evolved over millennia to live in brackish type water,” says Mark Dumesnil, upper Golf Coast program manager at The Nature Conservancy in Texas, and “lack of fresh water inflow is an issue.” Unsustainable harvesting and increasing pollution also threaten oyster populations.
Oyster reefs hold both economic and environmental value. …more
Hawai’ian island has become latest battleground in fight over genetic modification
Lawmakers in Kauai today will decide the fate of a hotly debated bill that would require agri-biotech companies to disclose details about the pesticides they are using as well as the genetically modified crops they are growing on the Hawai‘ian island.
Photo by Shane O'Neill
The bill has had a rocky, emotionally charged ride so far. The Kauai County Council approved it on October 16 by an overwhelming six to one vote after a tortuous 19-hour-long hearing that went past 3 a.m. The hearing had been preceded by months of protests and debates on genetically modified crops and pesticides that set tempers flaring on the usually laid-back island. Then, 10 days after the council vote, much to the dismay of the bill’s supporters, Mayor Bernard Carvahlo, who had been skeptical about the bill from the start, vetoed it.
The councilmembers will vote on the bill again today, this time to override the mayor’s veto. The council needs five votes to override the mayor's veto. It could be a closer margin this time round, since Councilwoman Nadine Nakamura, who voted in favor of the bill last time, has stepped down and taken a job as the mayor's managing director.
Bill 2491 requires agricultural companies and farms to disclose the type and volume of pesticides they are spraying, as well as the location of the fields being sprayed. It also requires them to set up buffer zones between fields growing GM crops and public spaces like schools, hospitals, and parks. Companies have to notify the public before spraying pesticides.
“At the end of the day all we are asking for is disclosure of pesticides used and locations of GMO fields, not trade secrets or a total ban on GMOs,” says Councilman Gary Hooser, who co-introduced the bill in June. “All we are trying to do is to protect the health of our community. Frankly, the mayor hasn’t taken the time to understand the issue and he’s surrounded by industry, who are some of the largest employers in …more
The Philippines has been hit by 24 typhoons in the past year but the power of Haiyan was off the scale, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless. Is there even worse devastation to come?
Just as the world was beginning to take in the almost unimaginable devastation wrought by typhoon Haiyan, a young Filipino diplomat, Naderev Sano, was getting ready to lead his country's negotiations in the UN climate talks in Warsaw, Poland. Yeb, as he is known, is a scientist and head of his country's national climate commission and had flown out of Manila just hours before the vastness of Haiyan had become apparent.
Photo by Nove foto da Firenze
By Monday morning, Sano knew that the Philippines had been struck by possibly the strongest storm ever measured, killing many thousands of people and making millions homeless. He took the floor and, in some trepidation in front of the delegates of 190 countries, gave an extraordinary, passionate speech in which he clearly linked super typhoon Haiyan to manmade climate change and urged the world to wake up to the reality of what he said was happening from latin America to south east Asia and the US. He lambasted the rich countries, and dared climate change deniers to go to his country to see for themselves what was happening.
When he sat down, sobbing, he was given a standing ovation.
This was not just diplomatic theatricals or righteous grandstanding by a developing-country diplomat about the snail-like speed of the climate talks, which have dragged on for years and are not likely to conclude until 2015. What few people in Warsaw knew until Sano had nearly finished his speech was that even as he was addressing the UN, his brother was digging people out of the rubble of the ruined city of Tacloban and he and his family still did not know the fate of other relatives.
Normally stone-hearted diplomats broke down, and Sano, who calls himself a "revolutionary" and a "philosopher" on Twitter [@yebsano], said later he would go on hunger strike for the whole of the two-week meeting. In the last 24 hours he has been joined by 30 activists.
Just as significantly, his speech has reopened the growing debate about whether the extreme weather events seen around the world over the past few years, including Hurricane Sandy, the melting of the Arctic sea ice and …more
Recent vote opens up South American country to large-scale mining
A new mining law in Uruguay has unleashed a debate in the South American country between those who say Uruguay could benefit economically from big mining projects and those who say the environmental and social costs are too high.
Photo by Mac Armstrong
Zamin Ferrous, a British mining company, wants to tap Uruguay’s impressive iron reserves. The company estimates that Uruguay has 2.5 billion tons of iron, the eighth-largest reserves in the world. But, until this September, no one could mine those minerals, because doing so would require creating an open-pit mining zone of 55 square miles, and legislation had capped mining projects at four square miles. Then, on September 3, the Uruguayan legislature passed the “Large-scale Mining Law,” which removes size limits and thereby opens the country to large-scale mining projects.
According to its proposal, Zamin Ferrous hopes to invest $3 billion — the largest foreign investment in Uruguay’s history — in a project to extract 18 million tons of iron per year during the next 12 to 15 years.
Zamin Ferrous didn’t respond to requests for comment, citing a “lack of time resources,” but Alfredo Asti, a delegate to Uruguay’s General Assembly who helped draft the new mining legislation, says the project would be a source of tax revenue, employment, and a higher standard of living for the people in the iron-rich Valentines region. Zamin Ferrous’ taxes would depend on the international price of iron, and the government would invest 30 percent of that revenue in education and environmental programs and would set aside the remaining 70 percent as a special fund for future generations. “It’s an investment in the future,” Asti says.
Uruguayan environmentalists see the matter differently. They worry about the environmental and public health consequences of a project unprecedented in size in the tiny country.
Víctor Bacchetta, of the Movement for a Sustainable Uruguay, says Zamin Ferrous would dig five pits, four of them about 1,000 feet deep with a surface area …more
A brief introduction from an Earth First! organizer
In 1998, I found myself traveling among Earth First! activists and living in an Oregon road blockade. Beyond the blockade were a series of treesits designed to protect an ancient forest from industrial logging. It was the first movement that I really felt a part of, though I have to admit that I was skeptical about any potential for victory. But the feeling was right, so I stuck with it. Today, you can go to where that grove of giant Douglas fir trees near Fall Creek is still standing and see the results of our actions for yourself.
Photo by Elizabeth Brossa
The same is true for a dozen-or-so other timber sales that were contested in the area. And in places where native forests were lost to the saws, we made sure they were not forgotten – images of us standing on massive stumps became burned into brains around the world. Rather than stifling us with sadness, these losses became fuel for our fight. It was only in hindsight that I realized our publicity generated through daring protests also played a role in changing the actual language people were using to talk about ecosystem protection, and as a result, the public policy surrounding forestry.
More than that, our experience in the backwoods gave us the skills, analysis, and affinity groups we needed to descend on Seattle a few years later and derail the global economy's WTO meeting with blockades throughout the city center.
A very similar scenario is playing out across the US right now, visible in the rise of direct action campaigns against energy corporations and their infrastructure. The clearest example I can point to at the time of writing this is a tree canopy occupation on Andarko's proposed fracking site in Pennsylvania's Loyalsock State Forest. But that campaign, which has been playing out in various installments since summer, is one of many where radical activists have recently taken to the woods and stood in the way of pipeline construction, fracking wells, tar sands and coal mining sites.